Just Back: Queenstown, New Zealand

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National Geographic Creative photographer Jill Schneider (on Instagram @jillhsphotography) teaches travel photography to high school students as a National Geographic Student Expeditions trip leader. She recently returned from Queenstown, a resort town on New Zealand’s South Island known as the “Adventure Capital of the World.”

Here are some of the highlights from Jill’s trip, in her own words:

Biggest selling point: There is plenty to do in Queenstown any time of year. During the winter (June-August), the city abounds in outdoor recreation opportunities—from skiing and glacier trekking to dogsledding. But when spring arrives, (September-November), hiking and biking take center stage. Tip: If you love a good walk in the woods, go “tramping” (the Kiwi name for hiking) on the famous Milford and Routeburn tracks.

Authentic souvenir: When you’re shopping around town, you’ll see the same souvenirs in every store. Products made from possum merino (a blend of possum fur and sheep’s wool) are the antidote to tacky tourist fare. Insulating wool and soft fur combines to make the perfect material to keep you warm all winter. Merino possum gear—from socks and gloves to sweaters and blankets—is available in a variety of colors and sold everywhere. It also makes great gifts.

Craveable culinary experience: Mention that you’re going to Queenstown and chances are someone will tell you that just have to try a Fergburger. Believe them. (Take it from me, they’re delicious—and huge.) But the absolute best culinary experience I had in Queenstown was at the Botswana Butchery.

Centrally located with views of Lake Wakatipu, this restaurant is elegant and stylish without being pretentious. It is one of the pricier dining options in town, but well worth it. The service was flawless and the food was delicious, fun, and inventive. Dishes range from deviled duck livers and wild Fiordland Red Deer tartare to High Country Lamb and Mount Cook Salmon Tail.

Surprising discovery: This is an international city! Many of the locals we met were not originally from New Zealand, and had quite simply come to Queenstown on vacation or to study abroad and never left. But regardless of origin, almost everyone we encountered seemed to love their hometown.

Noteworthy watering hole: There are many great pubs within walking distance of each other in Queenstown, so my advice is go to on a good old fashioned bar crawl. My favorite was the World Bar, with its famous teapot cocktails and dance floor. Honorable mentions include Cowboys (think mechanical bull, horse-saddle seats, and a pool table), Below Zero (jacket and gloves are distributed to guests upon entry, as everything is made of ice!), and Atlas Beer Café (go for craft beer, lake views, and tasty eats).

Outdoor oasis: Queenstown Gardens. On a sunny day, take a walk along Lake Wakatipu and around the gardens, enjoy a picnic on the beach, and—depending on the weather—go ice-skating or have a go at lawn bowling. Wander down any path and you’re virtually guaranteed a stunning view of the lake or the mountains (or both).

Take a scenic road trip around Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy. (Photograph by Jill Schneider)
Take a scenic road trip around Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy. (Photograph by Jill Schneider)

Another option: Take the Skyline Gondola up to Bob’s Peak. At the top, explore the trails, take in (and photograph) breathtaking bird’s-eye views of the city below, grab a toboggan and race down the mountain, or try your hand at bungee jumping or paragliding.

Transportation advice: Rent a car and take a road trip. You won’t need it in Queenstown, but it’s ideal for exploring the surrounding Lake Wakatipu region.

After a few days exploring downtown, my husband and I decided to get a rental and drive the rim of the lake. We took our time, stopping to take photographs when the whim struck. Finally, we arrived at the small town of Glenorchy, located where the Dart and Rees rivers meet Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. When all was said and done, this ended up being one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever taken. Tip: Stop for lunch at the Glenorchy Café and pick up some souvenirs at the Glenorchy General Store.

Doable side trip: Hands down, go to Milford Sound. Many tour operators offer trips there, and picking the right one can be a challenge. The most cost-effective route is to drive to the sound and take a cruise around the fjord. A more time-efficient option, and what we did, is to book a “Fly, Cruise, Fly” package with Milford Air. (Note: Weather can be a factor when planning for this day trip; Milford Sound one of the wettest inhabited places on the planet.)

In Queenstown, we caught a 12-seater plane for a quick 50-minute flight, hopped off for a two-hour cruise (which included a buffet lunch), and then flew back. We left at 9am and got back by 2pm. The flight itself is worth the cost of the whole package. We flew over snowy mountains and glacial lakes that we never would have seen if we had been driving.

Tip: Bring your camera and take some aerial shots mid-flight.

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